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Investing in our mental ‘wealth’ through physical activity - Hayley Jarvis

01 February 2024

By Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity at Mind

At Mind, we see physical activity as a powerful tool that helps maintain good mental health and wellbeing - a key ingredient to support mental health recovery.

But we know that maintaining positive mental wellbeing can feel like a challenge, especially for those of us who work in a busy or stressful environment such as a college, where you’re putting staff and students’ needs first. It’s something we can relate to in the mental health sector where we spend time supporting others and can often neglect our own self-care.

As well as being head of physical activity for the national charity Mind, I also volunteer for two local charities on my non-working day as a peer volunteer for a mental wellbeing running group “Jolly Joggers” and as a person-centred counsellor for another. I’m also proud to be a national assessor for the King’s Award for Voluntary Service (the equivalent of an MBE Member of the Order of the British Empire but for voluntary groups), assessing nominations from mental health, homeless and refugee projects. It’s fair to say I thrive on being busy.

Fighting for mental health is something that I live and breathe both at work and in my personal life, but given my own mental health problems, I’ve learnt the hard way that we “can do anything, but not everything”, as David Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done productivity system, says.

Physical activity is a great way to support and invest in our mental wealth, but it shouldn’t be the only tool we use to manage difficult emotions. It can become a problem when it becomes our only coping strategy, which I have experienced first-hand. As an avid runner, I do lean on this activity to help me deal with personal and professional challenges, so when I have been injured or my physical health holds me back, it can, and has in the past, felt like a huge loss to not be able to lace up my trainers and join my friends on a long run. Instead, I have found myself in tears on the kitchen floor feeling like my whole world has fallen apart… So, we’ve spent the last couple of years at Mind working with people with lived experience to develop resources to help create a healthy relationship with physical activity resource.

And being active shouldn’t be about how far, how fast, or how much you lift. For me it’s about how it makes me feel. Recent research from ASICS Uplifting Minds found that just 15.09 minutes of physical activity can be enough to lift your mood, and I believe this is a game changer. It’s encouraged me to go for short walks mid-morning when we have some daylight in these long winter days. Being active outdoors can also help us to be more mindful; I love watching the birds and the seasons change around me, but also accessing a boost of Vitamin D which is important for our mental and physical health.

We Are Undefeatable have some great ideas for 5 activities you can do in 5 minutes. I’ve also learnt the importance of opening ourselves to new things, such as yoga and mindfulness, and have found new passions including my own personal journey from therapy client to therapist. I also have a deep commitment to gratitude, even after a couple of dark years, I can find things to be grateful for every day.

As I deliver workshops on self-care and the 5 Ways to Wellbeing, I feel it’s important to be my authentic self. I recognise that it can be hard to make time to invest in our own mental wealth but with my counsellor hat on, I believe we need to approach this with compassion and kindness. “Giving” is one of the 5 ways which provides me with immense satisfaction, but I also recognise that to help others I need to ‘give’ or help myself and focus on my own mental wealth first.

Investing in our mental wealth doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming. Yes, we all love the idea of mini-break or the next holiday, but it’s about building in regular rest and recovery time. This includes taking our lunch break, planning in random days off or alternating challenging work tasks with something more in our comfort zone. It’s far more powerful to build in micro-moments of self-care, such as taking two minutes for breathing exercises (alternate nasal breathing or ‘nadi shodhana pranayama’ is my personal go to), savouring that cup of tea, or spending a brief time looking out the window, than hanging on for annual leave when we can end up ill and burnout.

A therapist once reminded me, we are “human beings, not human doings”. Sometimes we need to take a step back and think about doing less, or doing more of what fills up our mental wealth bank account!”

This blog is part of the ETF Leadership Mental Health project, delivered by AoC and commissioned by the Education and Training Foundation on behalf of the Department for Education.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.